Burt Bacharach crooned: “What the world needs now, is love, sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.”
Jesus would have agreed. At the last supper before his arrest and crucifixion, he taught his disciples:
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13:34-35, NIV).
The Lord was only asking them to do what his Father had already done. It was because God “so loved the world” that he sent Jesus (John 3:16). And Jesus in turn showed his love for the world, laying down his life for the world (John 1:29). It follows that what the Father and Son have done, we are called to do, loving the world in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Yet there’s an interesting tension in the New Testament books attributed to John. While there is a positive love of the world that fuels our service to God and others, there’s a negative kind of “loving the world,” one that chokes off our zeal for God and withers our concern for others. John warns:
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them (1 John 2:15, NIV).
So which is it: Should we love the world or not? The answer is: BOTH.
Make no mistake: Our call is to love the world – all that God has made – wholeheartedly and unreservedly, in order that the world may be reconciled to God. We long for the day when heaven and earth will be one (Revelation 21:1-5). God has a loving concern for creation, the cosmos. What God has created, God longs to salvage and to renew. To this task God calls us, to partner with heaven to redeem the earth, including humans who have rebelled against God. If we do not love what God loves, how can we cooperate for its restoration?
Yet paradoxically, 1 John 2:15 instructs us to not love the world. Here, the meaning of “world” has changed. Reading all of 1 John, it becomes apparent that “world” is no longer the John 3:16 world that God loves. “World” is no longer the created order that God called “good” or “very good” (see Genesis 1). Instead, this is the fallen world after humanity’s rebellion, a world twisted and defaced by sin. The “world” in John’s first Epistle is all within creation that is in open rebellion, hostile, and radically opposed to God. This includes all things demonic, as implied in 1 John 4:4b, a calming reminder to the believer that “the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (4:4b, CEB). Disciples of Christ do not live in the blissful neutrality of a spiritual Switzerland. Rather, we foment a Kingdom of God insurgency behind enemy lines in a world that has largely taken sides against God, that “lies in the power of the evil one” (5:19 CEB).It is this “friendship with the world” that James calls “enmity against God” (James 4:4, NIV).
The worldly mindset marginalizes God; it cares little for serving the world with love. To the contrary, it makes self center-stage. It’s an ugly narcissism characterized by “the craving for whatever the body feels, the craving for whatever the eyes see and the arrogant pride in one’s possessions” (2:16, CEB).
Saying we love God while practicing what opposes God is nonsense. Yet how many attempt to live with one foot in Jesus’ camp and one foot in the devil’s? A.W Tozer observed:
A whole new generation of Christians has come up believing that it is possible to ‘accept Christ’ without forsaking the world.
Granting Tozer’s point, we must careful how we apply it, with balance and discernment. Sadly, the church has in times past – with every good intention – tended toward legalism, defining “world” too broadly. In so doing, we needlessly classified whole categories of activities as out-of-bounds, and in so doing, ceded important cultural space and influence. Movies are one example. Realizing the potential of film to reach people for Christ, the Billy Graham Association in the 1970s produced “The Hiding Place,” the inspirational story of Cory Ten Boom. Yet because my denomination considered movie going to be worldly, as members of the church, we were forbidden from going to the cinema. Thankfully, my parents made an exception to the rule, and I’m glad we went. I’d like to think Billy Graham was, too!
But today, such a story seems quaint. Our scruples are far less rigorous, yet I wonder:
By seeking to avoid one extreme, have we committed the opposite error?
Without blinking an eye, what do we tolerate today – even celebrate – that is worldly, opposing God and God’s righteous plan for our lives? What dubious practices, in the name of freedom, have us enslaved? God can free us, but first we must be willing to admit we’re trapped and seek divine help.
Summing it all up
God loves all creation, including this world and its people. Likewise, we are called to love the world that God wants to reconcile. To put this love into action, we must be willing to forsake worldly desires that lure us away from God. We cannot do so alone, but by the power of God’s Holy Spirit inside us and banding together, we can live a life of holy love, both individually and as the church. Are you ready for the great adventure?
Boy and globe: By NARA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A.W. Tozer: Internetmonk.com